Skip to main content


Showing posts from 2014

Professor Graeme Barker CBE

I would like to offer my personal congratulations to Professor Graeme Barker, former Disney Professor of Archaeology at Cambridge University, for his nomination as CBE in the New Year's Honours List. Graeme was Director of the British School at Rome when I was Rome Scholar working on Greek pottery in Italian contexts.

US returns antiquities to Turkey

.@DHSgov returns to Turkey dozens of artifacts intercepted at Newark International Airport
— Heritage at State (@HeritageAtState) December 30, 2014
The US Government has returned a number of antiquities to Turkey that had been intercepted at Newark International Airport ("Priceless 6th Century B.C. historical artifacts returned to Turkish government", 10 December 2014, ICE press release).
The artifacts were intercepted at Newark International Airport by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) in February 2013 and HSI Newark returned the items Tuesday subsequent to an investigation that determined the artifacts were illegally smuggled out of Turkey using false documentation destined for an individual in Illinois. The return included 15 ancient coins.

Who is the private individual in Illinois? Are they a dealer? Or a collector? Or a dealer-collector? Will this person be named?

And how does a paid Washington lobbyist explain this seizure?

For earlier c…

Review of 2014

In January this year I made some predictions. The first was that there would be continued sightings of objects handled by Medici and Becchina on the antiquities market. And there have been, including Bonhams in London (and again in October), Christies in London, Christie's in New York (and see here), and an Egyptian statue at Sothebys New York.

Interestingly the Italians were threatening to take legal action over the Symes material. But this did not seem to materialise.

I had suggested that there needed to be more rigorous due diligence checks prior to sales: clearly this continues to be a weakness. So I addressed it in my column, "Context Matters", in the Fall number of the Journal of Art Crime (2014).

I have not discussed objects identified from the Medici Dossier now in one major North American museum during 2014. However it is likely that the collector and museum will be named in 2015. However Christos Tsirogannis discussed the collecting history of a Paestan krater

PAS and controlled archaeological excavation

The Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) "allows finds discovered by members of the public to be recorded for the benefit of researchers and the public alike" (Michael Lewis, press release). And I noticed that The Times on Saturday (Mark Bridge, "For history and riches go treasure-seeking", 27 December 2014) was discussing how PAS had reported its millionth find. Yet we also know that the PAS database includes material from "Controlled archaeological excavation". So a major Roman coin hoard excavated by archaeologists in Bath appears in the database.

One of the things that was discussed by Gill and Chippindale is the difference between objects with a secure archaeological context (a1), and those with a reported or alleged find-spot. To what extent is the PAS database falling into the 'a2' (or a3 / a4) categories? How far can we trust reported find-spots? ['a' stands for archaeology. And this is another reason why I am trying to discourage the…

Happy Christmas

I would like to wish all readers of LM a very happy and peaceful Christmas.

The Ka Nefer Nefer Mummy Mask: its collecting history

My article on the acquisition of the Ka Nefer Nefer mummy mask by the St Louis Art Museum has been published in The Journal of Art Crime ("The case of the Ka Nefer Nefer mummy mask", vol. 12, 13-25). It discusses previously undisclosed information about when the curatorial team at SLAM became aware of aspects of the collecting history. In particular, there is discussion of the exchanges in 1999 that brought about "new" information about when the mask had first been sighted.

The article is likely to raise issues about the apparent lack of rigour in the due diligence process adopted by SLAM during the acquisition, and the unwillingness to discuss the collecting history with Egyptian authorities when concerns were first raised with SLAM (including with the Director).

I close with this question:
Will professional responsibilities bring the SLAM team to reopen discussions with the Egyptian authorities to ensure the mask's return to Egypt?

Selling Antiquities in New York

The two big sales of antiquities at Christie's and Sotheby's have taken place in New York this week. It is time to review the year.

First it is clear that there has been a steady decrease each year from 2010 ($133.8 million) to the present $26.8 million. And that is nearly a $6 million drop since 2013.

Sotheby's has yielded more than Christie's for the third year in a row. This year's difference was more than $2.5 million. (Last year was $7.5 million, so the gap is narrowing.)

Both auction houses have had to address issues relating to the so-called "toxic antiquities" that their due diligence processes appear to have failed to spot.

Symes Statue Unsold at Sotheby's

It seems that the Egyptian statue that had appeared to pass through the hands of Robin Symes has been left unsold at Sotheby's today.

Robin Symes, the Egyptian Priest and Sotheby's

Later today Sotheby's will be auctioning "AN EGYPTIAN DIORITE FIGURE OF A PRIEST OF THE TEMPLE OF MUT, LATE 25TH/EARLY 26TH DYNASTY, CIRCA 670-610 B.C." (lot 6). The collecting history is provided:

private collection (Christie's, London, April 27th, 1976, no. 135, illus.) Khnoum, Geneva, 1992 Drouot-Richelieu, Paris, October 1st, 1996, no. 462, illus. Safani Gallery, New York Jack Josephson Collection (Sotheby’s, New York, June 5th, 2008, lot 57, illus.) 
In 2008 it sold for $422,500.

Who was the vendor in 1976? And who was the statue's proprietor prior to 1976? When did the statue leave Egypt?

The statue has been exhibited at:

the Michael C. Carlos Museum, Emory University, August 2008-August 2013 the Albany Institute of History and Art, “The Mystery of the Albany Mummies”, September 21st, 2013-June 8th, 2014
Part of the collecting history has been expanded. Glasgow University researcher Dr Christos Tsirogiannis has spotted that the statue appears in the Schinouss…

Christie's: withdrawn lots

Those following Christie's sale of antiquities will have noted the following lots have been withdrawn:
Lot 51: AN EGYPTIAN ALABASTER FIGURAL JUG. "This Lot is Withdrawn."Lot 95: Athenian red-figured krater. "This Lot is Withdrawn."Lot 133: A FALISCAN BLACK-GLAZED ASKOS. "This lot has been withdrawn from the sale." Collecting history: "with Phoenix Ancient Art, Geneva, 1997"; "PROPERTY FROM THE MICHAEL AND JUDY STEINHARDT COLLECTION".Lot 139: A ROMAN MARBLE COLUMN CAPITAL. "This Lot is Withdrawn." Dr Christos Tsirogannis had linked lot 95 to photographs associated with David Swingler, and lots 51 and 139 to the Schinoussa archive. It is not clear why the askos was withdrawn from the sale, although it joins the Sardinian figure also from the Steinhardt collection.

Who owned the askos prior to 1997? What does it say about other objects that were derived from this route? What about the mummy mask that was acquired by the St Lo…

Why loan the odd pedimental sculpture from the Parthenon?

Lee Rosenbaum has explored why Nel MacGregor has been keen to make a loan of the 'Ilissos' statue to the Hermitage Museum ("Preparing for Lawsuit? Why Might Neil MacGregor Be Doubling Down on His Elgin Marbles Bet?", Culturegrrl December 9, 2014).

Rosenbaum suggests the following as a possible explanation of MacGregor's tactic:
More people view these cultural treasures in London than in Athens. And now, with the incipient loan program, the British Museum’s reach could be further broadened. Therefore, the world is better off if custodianship of these treasures remains in London. This one statue is part of a pedimental group, that forms part of an architectural whole from a major fifth century BC temple known as the Parthenon. Is the time coming when these sculptures are placed in a specially designed museum and within line of site from the Athenian akropolis, a UNESCO World Heritage site?

Robin Symes and lots at Christie's

Authenticated and therefore reliable collecting histories are important. Auction catalogues need to be able to demonstrate the previous owners of a lot. After all, potential buyers need to understand what they are buying.

Dr Christos Tsirogannis has identified two of the lots that are to be auctioned this week at Christie's from the Schinoussa Archive (linked to Robin Symes). This raises questions about when the objects passed through Symes' hands.


with Nicholas Wright, London, prior to 1980. Private Collection, U.K., 1992. with Charles Ede, London. PROPERTY FROM THE HARER FAMILY TRUST COLLECTION


Antiquities, Sotheby's, London, 18 May 1987, lot 210 (part). Antiquities, Sotheby's, New York, 25 June 1992, lot 138.

For lot 51, is Robin Symes the anonymous private collector? Is this the best way to describe him?
For lot 139, when did Symes possess the capital?

Christie's: "having to prove provenance"

Readers of LM will know that I find the word "provenance" as obsolete. Why not use the terms archaeology ("this krater was found in tomb 56 of the Fikellura cemetery"; "we do not know where this statue was found") or collecting history ("formerly in the Hope collection"; "auctioned on the New York market"; "property of an anonymous Belgian gentleman")? I have written on this topic and the key article from the Journal of Art Crime can be found here.

I see that William Robinson, International Head of Group at Christie's, has written about the forthcoming December sales, including antiquities (that takes place this week). He comments:
Each individual area has had particular challenges. For me this year, many have been directly or indirectly related to the questions of cultural property and provenance. We have not been able to sell any Pre-Columbian Art in 2014, as we have not been presented with any that has had provable p…

Swingler and the Getty: "we need things to fill it up"

The issue about the krater at auction at Christie's this week and linked to David Swingler (by Dr Christos Tsirogiannis) continues to develop.

It appears that Swingler worked with Jiri Frel of the J. Paul Getty Museum to supply antiquities. A 1987 report records (Claire Spiegel and Robert A. Jones, "Unseen Artworks Embroil Getty Museum in Dispute", LA Times April 12, 1987):
Frel became well-known for his ability to drain the living rooms of wealthy collectors. "He cried for them; he whined for them," said David Swingler, a Los Angeles archeologist and collector. "He would say to me, 'Please, we have a Roman villa, we need things to fill it up.' He was constantly asking for knickknacky things for the study collection." It would be interesting to know which of the Getty pieces are linked to Swingler.

The British Museum and Cultural Imperialism

The loan of one of the pedimental sculptures from the Parthenon to the Hermitage raises a number of issues about cultural property. I was presenting a research seminar on this topic in Cambridge last month and I was asked how the debates fit into the wider discussion of cultural imperialism.

One of the most helpful reviews attacking the position of the Encyclopedic museum as maintained by James Cuno, and Neil MacGregor, has been provided by Roger Bland of the British Museum. 
It is well worth a read.

The Parthenon loan to Russia

The British Museum has announced that it has loaned the statue possibly representing the river Ilissos to Russia (BBC News, 5 December 2014). This statue forms part of the west pediment of the Parthenon.

Neil MacGregor sees the loan as a "marble ambassador of a European ideal" (British Museum blog). The sculpture will be on loan to the Hermitage.

I suppose we could see the Parthenon as a building derived from tribute paying cities scattered around the Aegean. And I am sure that there were some asking questions in the fifth century BC about how their talents were being spent.

But it all depends on how you view empires and imperialism.

Pasta, Swingler, Christie's and the Krater

Back in 2000, Christina Ruiz reported on "Artefacts Smuggled in Spaghetti" for the Art Newspaper. In June of that year:
The other major group of works presented to the [Italian] Ministry of Culture was confiscated from the California home of David Holland Swingler, a food importer, by US Customs officials collaborating with the Italian police. The Swingler cache was returned to Italy in June.  ... When US Customs officials searched Swingler's home in Laguna Hills they discovered a similar hoard of artefacts.  The investigation into Swingler has revealed just how easy the business of smuggling artefacts can be. It seems that during trips to Italy, Mr Swingler made direct contact with tombaroli by visiting archaeological sites and simply asking around.  Artefacts looted from Etruscan and Apulian sites by tombaroli collaborating with Swingler were passed onto his Italian partner and shipped to the US hidden among bundles of pasta in food containers.  ...  In 1996 Swingler w…

More identifications at Christie's

Breaking News
It appears that four more identifications from photographic archives have been made by Glasgow academic Dr Christos Tsirogiannis.  Three  relate to items in the forthcoming auction at Christie's, and one at Sotheby's.

Due Diligence at Christie's: time for change?

The decision to withdraw the Steinhardt Sardinian Figure from the 'Ancient Art' auction at Christie's in December raises some issues.

First, did the Christie's antiquities team check the collecting history of the figure for themselves? It is clear from a simple and brief search that the figure had been owned by a private individual (who appeared to be represented as a gallery) and that the gallery where the figure was exhibited did not appear to own it. Why did Christie's present the information in the way that they did?

Second, did the Christie's antiquities team contact the Italian / Sardinian authorities to check that the figure was not listed in one of the photographic archives?

Third, did Christie's use a third party to check databases of "stolen" archaeological objects? It is known that some of these agencies do have access to some of the photographic archives seized by the Italian authorities.

Fourth, have the staff at Christie's manage…

Announcing news on Thanksgiving Day

The apparent removal of the Steinhardt Sardinian figure from auction at Christie's is timely. After all, today is Thanksgiving Day. Eight years ago, also in late November, the J. Paul Getty Museum announced the return of its first batch of material to Italy.

So perhaps it is a day to bury "bad news".

But what is surprising is that a major institution like Christie's has not absorbed the lessons of the last eight years in what has become known as "The Medici Conspiracy".

Academic researchers now realise that it is important to probe and investigate "collecting histories".

And we know that it is important to check the photographic archives that have been seized by the Italian authorities.

Staff in the "Ancient Art" department at Christie's need to adopt a more rigorous due diligence process to prevent this type of incident happening again. They ought to recognise that their present process is not "fit for purpose".

It is perh…

Steinhardt Sardinian Figure Withdrawn From Sale

Bloccata l'asta della Dea Madre - Pili, "risultato importantissimo, ora torni all'Isola"
— Ansa Sardegna (@AnsaSardegna) November 27, 2014
Many Italian news agencies now seem to be covering the decision by Christie's to withdraw the Sardinian figure from December's auction. The vendor was Michael Steinhardt.

Steinhardt Sardinian Figure: Update

It appears that the Steinhardt Sardinian Figure has been withdrawn from auction at Christie's next month.

Christie's and "transparency"

Back in November 2009 (i.e. 5 years ago) some objects that passed through Christie's were seized and subsequently returned to Italy. When I contacted the press office at Christie's I was informed "the transparency of the public auction system combined with the efforts from the U.S. ICE and foreign governments, in this matter, led to the identification of two stolen artifacts". The Attic pelike and the Apulian situla have now been returned to Italy.

Five years later, a Sardinian figure due to be auctioned at Christie's appears to have been identified by Dr Christos Tsirogiannis from Polaroids in the Medici Dossier.  The posting of the catalogue ('the transparency of the public auction system')  has prompted the identification.

If the pelike and situla can be described as "stolen" by Christie's because they appeared in the Becchina archive, how does the same auction house describe the Sardinian figure?

Press coverage of Steinhardt Sardinian Figure Growing

Rara Dea Madre finisce all-asta da Christie-s via @lanuovasardegna
— David Gill (@davidwjgill) November 25, 2014
There seems to be growing coverage in the Sardinian and Italian press of the story that the figure identified by Dr Christios Tsirogiannis appears in the Medici Dossier.

Discussion has started to include the figure returned from the Cleveland Museum of Art.

Coverage of Steinhardt Sardinian Figure

The coverage of the story about the Sardinian figure due to be auctioned at Christie's in December  is growing. There is now a feature on Sardinian TV.

The Steinhardt Sardinian Figure: Social Media

ARCAblog | Dr. Christos Tsirogiannis identifies rare Sardinian idol to be auctioned at Christie's December 11 ...
— ARCA (@ARCA_artcrime) November 21, 2014

Comments on social media are applying pressure on the vendor of a Sardinian figure due to be sold at Christie's in December.

Diplomatic pressure and the Steinhardt Sardinian Figure

It appears that officials in Sardinia have asked US Ambassador Phillips (in Rome) that the Sardinian figure due to be auctioned at Christie's in December should be returned to Italy ("Pili: Bloccate l'asta della Dea Madre. E' refurtiva, deve tornare in Sardegna", Sassari Notizie November 25, 2014). The figure has been identified by Dr Christos Tsirogiannis from a Polaroid that formed part of the Medici Dossier.

“Bloccate immediatamente la vendita della Dea Madre. E’ refurtiva, va restituita alla Sardegna. Il governo italiano deve intervenire immediatamente sull’amministrazione americana per bloccare l’asta dell’11 dicembre prossimo a New York. Non si tratta di un pezzo pregiato da vendere, ma è refurtiva. Rubata alla Sardegna e ai sardi. Un governo autorevole e serio deve intervenire con tutti i poteri a sua disposizione per bloccare questa vergognosa vendita che offende la storia della Sardegna e dei Sardi." Christie's needs to respond to these claims …

The Steinhardt Sardinian figure and "the transparency of our operations"

Readers of LM will know that Max Bernheimer of Christie's made a public statement in 2010 about the 'transparency of [Chriet's] operations". He specifically said:
Provenance has always been important, and in light of recent repatriation issues, it has become paramount. By provenance he means "collecting history".

So is the verification of the "collecting history" for the Steinhardt Sardinian figure now "paramount" for Christie's? It appears that Dr Christos Tsirogiannis has identified the figure in a polaroid from the Medici Dossier.

We can assume that Bernheimer has been in touch with the Italian authorities and sought clarification.

But while he is about it, could he confirm when and how 'Harmon Fine Arts' obtained the figure? And why not use the name of the collector behind HFA?

And what does "with the Merrin Gallery" mean anything other than HFA made a loan of the figure for an exhibition?

Potential purchasers of…

Cycladic Figures from the Keros Haul and the 'Harmon Collection'

Peggy Sotirakopoulou linked five pieces of the Cycladic 'Keros Haul' to 'Harmon, New York'. These are:
170: Spedos figure. Formerly Ian Woodner (acquired in 1968 or 1969). NAC no. 39; Harmon/Stern 2004, 40, no. 138; Getz-Gentle, PS rev. 158, no. 1 ('The Karlsruhe/Woodner Sculptor') ['Harmon coll']
180: Torso and thighs of a female figure. Formerly Halphen collection, 'since before the Second World War'; auctioned Paris, Drouot-Richelieu (December 1995). Harmon/Stern 2004, 13, no. 177.
181: Lower torso and thighs of a large female figurine. Formerly Ian Woodner, 'who acquired the figurine in 1962 or 1963'. NAC no. 41; Harmon/Stern 2004, 45, no. 157.
223: Torso and thighs of a female figurine. Formerly Jay C. Leff collection ('since the 1960s or earlier'), Julius Carlebach, New York; Sotheby's NY June 1996, lot 44. Harmon/Stern 2004, 12, no. 181.
242: The larger part of a female figurine. Formerly anonymous private collection. …

The Steinhardt Sardinian Figure and the Medici Dossier

Glasgow-based researcher Dr Christos Tsirogiannis has suggested that a Sardinian figure due to be auctioned at Christie's (December 11, 2014, lot 85) is linked to the Medici Dossier of polaroid photographs. The estimate is $800,000-$1,200,000.

The upper part of the head has been damaged in the Polaroid photograph, although no comments about restoration are made in the lot notes.

The figure is the stated as coming from the Michael and Judy Steinhardt Collection. Its earlier collecting history is stated as:
Harmon Fine Arts, New York. The Merrin Gallery, New York, 1990 (Masterpieces of Cycladic Art from Private Collections, Museums and the Merrin Gallery, no. 27). Acquired by the current owner, 1997. The due diligence search will no doubt have alerted the staff at Christie's and the agency they used to possible concerns. So, for example, was Harmon linked to some of the fragmentary Cycladic figures derived from the 'Keros Haul'?

The Merrin Gallery is linked to Roman bronz…

Nelson Bunker Hunt

The death of collector Nelson Bunker Hunt was announced in October 2014. A number of obituaries have appeared in the British press:

The Guardian (22 October)The Financial Times (22 October)The Independent (22 October)The Daily Telegraph (22 October)
Only the Telegraph mentioned his collections of antiquities and coins:
Forced into personal bankruptcy that required them to liquidate assets, the brothers auctioned off immense collections of Greek, Roman, Byzantine and Islamic coins, raising more than $30 million. Sotheby’s in New York sold their art collections, and they were even forced to offload household items, including an enamel teapot which went for $20. The frontispiece of the 1983 catalogue was the Etruscan terracotta antefix that was acquired by Laurence and Barbara Flieschman and returned to Italy from the J. Paul Getty Museum. The cover shows the Kyknos krater that was returned to Italy by Shelby White.

The Euphronios cup from the Hunt collection is the starting point for Ver…